Joshua Davis set out to win. At anything. Living in a crappy apartment with a crappy job and a loving but long suffering wife, Davis set out to prove himself. So runs the premise of his book, which is one of those hard-to-classify mixes of travelogue, biography, meditation and jokes about dwarves.
The Underdog starts off weakly and doesn’t really hit its stride til the third chapter. The lead-in time is worth it though, because the outlandish competitions Davis takes part in not only take him all over the world but also bring him into contact with some truly remarkable people. As Davis’ confidence grows in between becoming a pro arm wrestler, a matador, a sumo wrestler, a backwards runner and a sauna endurance competitor, so his prose manages to capture the euphoria, absurdity and the despair of the training process of each challenge. Davis continually grapples with the vertigo of impossibility that opens up in front of him and lays it wide open for the reader to understand his own feelings as he goes through each training regimen. Where Davis really succeeds here is in his lightness of touch – he’s serious about what he’s doing, but he’s not earnest. Similarly, he avoids the tedious “isn’t this oh-so-wacky” route too – although, admittedly, he does have a page about midget matadors.
It’s the people he meets that are the real stars of this book – Maru the Hawaiian Sumo Grand Master, at the end of his career at 32 and treated like a near-diety in Japan, which makes for a somewhat lonely existence; Mr Veerabadran in Chennai, India, the world backward running champion who focuses on the face of his wife to cut through the excruciating pain; and, of course, the midget matadors. There’s a host of other characters that Davis manages to describe concisely and eloquently, cutting to the heart of what they are about within a few pages and connecting their seemingly odd pursuits to the importance it holds within their lives. Veerabadran is my favourite person here, utterly resistant to his life being defined by others, nuts about his wife, contemptuous of money and the person who articulates what lies at the core of this book: “Everyone make meaning. That is what you must do. You make your own meaning”.
Davis never uses that byline of parents everywhere – “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part” – but this book provides a hugely entertaining and quite moving affirmation of exactly that. By doing something that’s important to you (provided it’s not illegal), you still win indirectly even if you fail, just through the people you meet and what you experience along the way. Certainly, for Davis, his competition quest opened the door to writing for Wired magazine, where he remains a contributing editor, including recently spending time in Iraq. It beats sitting in front of the telly anyway. [See joshuadavis.net for more details]
Davis lost every single competition he took part in but it would be dimwitted to say that somehow invalidates the value of what happened along the way. Davis is refreshingly unanalytic in that sense – he doesn’t try to extrapolate self help theories for his readers to follow – instead, we get to see him helping himself, moving from competition to competition realising he can do anything with some help and good will from others. The reason why we think these things are funny is because they make no sense on the surface. How can a tiny guy like Josh Davis becomes a sumo wrestler? The answer seems to be: simply by deciding to do so. Like PJ O’Rourke says, “You learn to work around huge areas of inability”.
What I enjoyed most about this book is that Davis covers a lot of ground here very concisely. His prose is amusingly self-deprecating but full of confidence; he runs the usual humour of American abroad culture shock while showing huge respect for those he meets; he shows a curiosity about the world from the vantage point of someone who knows nothing and is not afraid to admit it. He captures the wonder of learning something new – and the frustration and self-doubt that inevitably goes with it – and the way that such learning is never wasted. Even if you don’t win.